By Roger McCredie-Ed. Note: Last month the Tribune published a four-part series by investigative journalist Roger McCredie, examining the Asheville Art Museum’s ongoing efforts to finance a $24 million remodeling and expansion project at its Pack Place site. The museum says it has raised $11.4 million – less than half the projected cost — over a six-year period, but it has been reticent about the details of its fundraising. In July, Asheville’s city council voted to set aside $2 million in public funds for donation to the museum upon satisfactory completion of the museum’s own donations campaign. Tribune research disclosed that the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority made grants to the museum of $1 million in 2007 and $500,000 in 2009, but is still holding those monies in escrow — and turned down a further request in 2010 — because the museum has failed to meet interim fundraising goals and is now considered to be in default. The Tribune interviewed past and present city officials and executives of the other Pack Place tenants, but a central figure in the debate – museum Executive Director Pam Myers – did not respond until after the last planned installment of the series had gone to press. At first she asked for a face-to-face interview and a delighted McCredie asked her to name the time and place. She did not reply. Several days later, however, McCredie received the responses below to questions he had originally put to her by e-mail. In the interest of fairness, the Tribune offers herewith Ms. Myers’ responses to questions put to her by McCredie. To place her comments within the context of the series, McCredie has added explanatory comments in parentheses.
: Ms. Myers, you have some heavy credentials. You’ve been at the helm of the Asheville Art Museum for 18 years and your resume includes a stint at the prestigious Guggenheim Museum in New York. Is that how you came to settle on Ennead Architects, the renowned New York firm, to handle your expansion project?
Myers: A Building Committee including Asheville architects, artists, board members and arts supporters researched and interviewed architecture firms, from across the country, who had significant experience in developing art museums. Interviews held in Asheville included Pack Place partners and additional community members. The Committee recommended the award winning firm Ennead for their design excellence, competence and track record working with museums. The board of trustees approved their recommendation.
Q: What would be your reply to critics who claim that the art museum’s dramatic increase in size and the relocation of the other tenants’ entrances and ticket offices will marginalize the other tenants?
Myers: Our partners have said that they have had strong attendance and participation this year (after our interim expansion). The Theatre has designed and built a dramatic new ticket office, a marquee and along with the Colburn Earth Science Museum added significant new signage on Biltmore Avenue and in the Courtyard. The Museum’s success will support our partners in the arts, education and business.
(In the Tribune series’ final installment, “When All’s Said and Done” [Aug. 22], Diana Wortham Theatre Executive Director John Ellis called having to relocate the theatre’s main entrance and ticket booth to accommodate the museum’s expansion plans “an obstacle.” Ellis likened promises that the refurbished museum would be a magnet for the other Pack Place tenants to “being told you’ve won a trip to Disneyland but you’re going to have to walk to get there” and concluded, “Maybe Disneyland isn’t worth the walk.”
Q: Were you surprised when TDA rejected your request for a third Tourist Product Development Fund grant, given that you were already in default on the first two?
Myers: All that refers to is the original contract timeline expiring. The timeline was revised and contract renewed. The Museum is in good standing with the current contract with the TDA.
(The July 25, 2012, letter from then TDA chairman Ron Morin to Myers informing her that the contract was considered “in default” appeared on Page 1 of the Tribune’s August 15 issue and was explored in that issue’s article, “Good Money After Bad?”. Accompanying Morin’s letter was a new contract, with more stringent provisions, giving the museum until January 31, 2014 to finish its fundraising and begin its project or face “remedies including delaying disbursements or terminating the agreement.” Myers signed and returned this new agreement on December 21, 2012, five months after she received it. Former mayor and Pack Place consultant Ken Michalove [see below] has stated that Myers “has already said” the museum will not be able to comply with the January deadline, but did not say in what context Ms. Myers allegedly made that statement.)
Q: It apparently took some digging for media to confirm that the art museum’s fundraising goal is $24 million, of which only $11.4 million has been raised since 2007. Was this a matter of secrecy, or have fundraising activities and donation totals always been readily available?
Myers: Our Capital Campaign goal and campaign materials have been public for many years.
Q: Fundraising is the lifeblood of nonprofits and many of them, when kicking off a new capital drive, start blitzing both the corporate and the public sectors for donations all at once. In 2010 you told Verve magazine that you were “working with major donors” and were “in the quiet phase of the campaign now.” You gave substantially the same response to Citizen-Times reporter John Boyle just a few weeks ago. Given the TDA default problem and low donations-to-time ratio, why has the museum not gone fully public with its appeal for capital funds?
Myers: We are not in default of the current TDA contract. The Campaign timeline is moving forward. You may be aware that the Museum had to wait for The Health Adventure to move facilities and that we have all just gone through the Great Recession.
(Ms. Myers did not explain how these two events relate to the status of the museum’s TDA contract, or have affected its fundraising efforts. The Health Adventure vacated its Pack Place space in 2011, five years after the museum unveiled its expansion plan. The “Great Recession” is reckoned to have begun in 2008, the year between the two grants the museum received from TDA. The recession’s actual impact on the museum’s private sector fundraising is not known [see above] except that it did not prevent the museum from applying for another performance-based grant from TDA in 2010, which was declined. In concentrating on the part of the question relating to default, Ms. Myers did not address the part dealing with why the museum still has not launched a public appeal for donations, especially since January 31, 2014 draws ever nearer.)
Q: Ken Michalove, who resigned as a consultant to Pack Place apparently in order to criticize this whole issue, has stated, “The Art Museum and Executive Director are inept at capital fund raising, the private sector will not support such an outrageous spending program and the City, County and BCTDA shouldn’t either.” What’s your response?
Myers: I am not aware of Mr. Michalove’s expertise in non-profit museum fundraising. Nor am I aware of why he resigned as a consultant. The City owned facilities are 20+ years old and in need of major repair. The project is well-crafted and reasonable to secure a community cultural asset and the collections held in the public trust for the future. The Museum has been recognized for its excellence in all areas of its operation by the American Alliance of Museums and donor and public response to the project has been overwhelmingly positive.
(Ms. Myers offered no specific examples of overwhelmingly positive donor and public response.)